The government charged Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, not with publishing classified government information, but with stealing it, skirting — for now — critical First Amendment questions.
By The Editorial Board
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
The arrest in London of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange ends one bizarre saga, but opens a legal drama that is likely to stretch over many years and could probe uncharted areas of press freedoms and national security in the United States in the digital era. There is good reason to be watchful as the case unfolds.
Mr. Assange, a 47-year-old Australian, had spent almost seven years holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy, initially to avoid arrest by Swedish authorities in a sexual assault investigation that has since been dropped, then British charges of skipping bail. But extradition to the United States was what Mr. Assange really feared, and what the cat-and-mouse game was always about.
It was in the United States that the materials posted on WikiLeaks created the greatest furor, first through the publication of a trove of classified documents supplied by an Army private, Chelsea Manning, and then by releasing material stolen from the computers of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The Obama administration was wary of pursuing Mr. Assange because WikiLeaks was essentially involved in investigative work common to a free press. But the Trump administration saw Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks as targets as soon as it took office. (Mr. Trump loved WikiLeaks in 2016 when it was embarrassing top officials of the Clinton campaign.) Two years ago, as director of the C.I.A., Mike Pompeo labeled WikiLeaks “a nonstate hostile intelligence service” after it released a cache of C.I.A. hacking tools. Efforts got underway then to build a case against Mr. Assange. This was confirmed through an inadvertent mention in a federal court filing last November.
Mr. Assange, meanwhile, managed to exhaust his welcome at the Ecuadorean Embassy, and on Thursday British police officers unceremoniously bundled the scraggly-bearded refugee off in a van. Soon after, Scotland Yard acknowledged that it was also acting on an American extradition warrant, after which a federal indictment was unsealed in the United States charging Mr. Assange with conspiring to hack a government computer.
The single charge is straightforward: It alleges that Mr. Assange helped the Army private break into a government computer in 2010 to steal classified and sensitive documents. According to the indictment, when Ms. Manning told Mr. Assange that she had no more material to send him, he replied, “Curious eyes never run dry in my experience.” Ms. Manning served almost seven years of a 35-year sentence for the leak, and is now back in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.
The still-unproven charge is far less contentious than had it been, as widely anticipated, for espionage-related crimes. That would have been a direct challenge to the distinction between a journalist exposing abuse of power through leaked materials — something traditional newspapers like The Times do all the time — and a foreign agent seeking to undermine the security of the United States through theft or subterfuge.
These questions will arise in any event — starting with the extradition hearings, at which Mr. Assange’s lawyers are likely to argue that the American charges are politically motivated. And if Britain does extradite him, there is no certainty that the Trump administration, with its combative stance toward the press and its documented recent antipathy for Mr. Assange, will not throw more charges at him.
The issues WikiLeaks raises are vitally important. The responsibilities, ethics and rules of journalism are fast changing in an era when terabytes of secret data can be dumped in a flash, and when hostile governments like Russia’s can burrow into foreign computers for compromising information and then launder it through other channels.
The case of Mr. Assange, who got his start as a computer hacker, illuminates the conflict of freedom and harm in the new technologies, and could help draw a sharp line between legitimate journalism and dangerous cybercrime. Once in the United States, moreover, he could become a useful source on how Russia orchestrated its attacks on the Clinton campaign.
The administration has begun well by charging Mr. Assange with an indisputable crime. But there is always a risk with this administration — one that labels the free press as “the enemy of the people” — that the prosecution of Mr. Assange could become an assault on the First Amendment and whistle-blowers.
More coverage of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks
An earlier version of this editorial said that Julian Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy to avoid arrest on sex charges in Sweden that have since been dropped. Mr. Assange was never formally charged in that investigation.